Note: For more pictures, check out the Flickr set I uploaded from the weekend. I’ll be doing this for all future ballpark visits. When I have time I’ll add old ones too.
Ever since the first indoor major league baseball game was played at the bold, brash Astrodome in 1965, purists have lamented the absence of character and quality in the domed game. Too loud, many said. Artificial, especially with the advent of fake turf. Aesthetics were brutally utilitarian because all of the early domes were multipurpose. Trading in difficult climates for air-conditioned perfection meant a lack of natural light and the regular smells and sounds of the outdoor game. In 1989, SkyDome took a big step forward with its retractable roof, even as all of the other dome elements remained the same. Eventually technology evolved to the point where there are now five newer retractable roof ballparks in Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Milwaukee, and as of last year, Miami. The political side of how Marlins Park was built and funded has been well documented, so I won’t cover it here. Instead, I’ll focus mostly on the ballpark itself: how well it does hosting ballgames and how well it’s integrated into the neighborhood and city.
I had driven 4 hours from Tampa to Miami in a beat-up rental, battling torrential (yet normal) rains along Alligator Alley. Marlins Park is set in Little Havana at the former site of the Orange Bowl. I could come here a thousand times and still be struck by the juxtaposition of this enormous, gleaming edifice dominating the landscape against low-slung, generally low-income housing. When the Orange Bowl was there it all seemed the fit – a rickety old stadium set among rickety old houses. There’s no worry about gentrification here, as Little Havana will have no trouble retaining all of its old charm and character. Great, inexpensive food from just about everywhere in Latin America abounds within a mile or two of the park. And the unique parking situation, carried over from the Orange Bowl, remains completely intact. Anyone driving through the surrounding neighborhood on game day will see a multitude of flag-waving residents luring cars to their yards with the promise of cheaper parking. The official garages charge $20, within a block it’s only $10. If you’re willing to go a block further, like me, you can find parking for $5. I found an older Cuban gentleman sitting on a chair next to his corner lot, and when he said parking was only $5 I was sold. Many of the yards are partly paved to accommodate cars so they’re prepared for this, and street parking is a no-go for non-residents, so cough up the $5 and walk the two blocks.
Two monuments commemorate the old football stadium: a painted column on the lower deck commemorating the old stadium’s history, and the arrangement of the distinctive “Orange Bowl” letters on the east side of the ballpark. It’s not much to show for all of the history the stadium has experienced as the host of a major bowl game and the University of Miami Hurricanes, but it’ll have to do. The ‘Canes have swapped places with the Marlins, playing their home games up north at Dolphins Stadium.
First pitch for the Mets-Marlins tilt was set for shortly after 4 PM, perfect for the retiree set. I had been told that there’s absolutely no reason to buy a walkup ticket at the box office. That assessment was proven correct as there were numerous scalpers assembled along the streets leading to the main plaza behind home plate, west of the stadium. $10 later (should’ve been $5) and I had a seat in the outfield at field level. Apparently the Marlins are giving away blocks of promotional tickets to get people in the park. On both Saturday and Sunday the tickets I bought were marked “promo”.
The plaza is certainly friendly enough, with lots of open space and numerous tents and stages set up most weekends. Saturday had a performance by Cirque after the game in the plaza, whereas Sunday had a large tent setup for a pet adoption drive. The tents and canopies helped soften up the plaza, which is flanked on the north and south ends by the concrete tracks that guide the rolling roof. The first time I saw those tracks in the original renderings I swore they were inspired by the USS Enterprise. Two restaurants are tucked into the street level facade, along with the team store and a cell phone outlet. The home plate gate is nothing to write home about, with simple gates leading straight to escalators that go up to the promenade (main level). The third base gate (SW corner) has a unique triangular ramp structure, perhaps the most elegant architectural element at Marlins Park. Its support columns are on the inside of the triangle, giving the appearance of the segments floating in mid-air. Unlike most other stadia, the ramps had limited access. The club, suite, and other premium levels were not accessible from the ramps, which was perhaps the first indicator of Jeff Loria’s disdain for the regular fan.
Neither gate has much in the way of a grand entrance into the concourse. It felt like entering a mall through one of the side entrances. Once inside, however, the space opened up fully and looked magnificent. Wayfinding signs were set just so, and the place had a very museum-like quality to it, precise yet inviting (fitting considering Loria is an art dealer). The promenade was at least 40 feet wide everywhere, with the concourse floor covered in a colored, textured surface resembling terrazzo. Regions of the concourse were color-coded in bright primary colors. Strangely, even though the Marlins adopted orange as one of its main colors in its image revamp prior to the opening of Marlins Park, there is precious little orange inside the stadium. Concourses, walls, and tiles are blue, red, yellow, and green. Everything else is museum white. Teal, the team’s former main color, has been banished. Loria left the garish treatment for the lime green outfield walls and the ever controversial home run scuplture by Red Grooms, a painted steel ode to sealife that resembles the backdrop of a pinball machine.
Concessions are surprisingly ho-hum. There is a “Taste of Miami” food court area, and a concessions stand in right center serves up pressed Cubano sandwiches, but everything else is fairly standard, uninteresting fare. Although pre-made, the Cubano was better than I expected. There’s no carvery or wok station like Target Field. There aren’t even any portable grills for fresh hot dogs, or a single permanent grill like the Saag’s stand at the Coliseum. It’s not just that the grill provides a better tasting sausage, it also contributes to the ballpark atmosphere via the wonderful aroma of grilled hot dogs, Italians and brats. Without that element, the air inside smelled a little too clean and conditioned. It felt arena-like.
With food and beverage in hand, I passed up my seat beyond the bullpen in right and looked for the best sneakdown opportunity I could find. I found one in section 3, about 15 rows up from the RF line. Pretty much everyone was sneaking down at some point, and I had no idea why the hundred or so people sitting in the upper deck were still there. After the sandwich was consumed I walked around the full length of the concourse, which has a view to the field from every section including center field. An enormous Budweiser bar stands in center and was quite popular. The Bacardi bar on the other side looked downright desolate, despite both having many of the same offerings. If anything the Budweiser bar benefits from being backed by the huge glass curtainwall doors in left field. The doors and roof weren’t open as there was some rain in the forecast and the temperature was 86 degrees outside. (By the way, the beer selection at Marlins Park is terrible, as one would expect from South Florida.)
A long escalator in left took me to the upper deck, which was depressingly empty. For both games, only a single concession stand was open. I saw directly behind home plate in the fourth row and liked the view (and the A/C effectiveness) better than at Minute Maid Park. The Marlins chose to stack most of the luxury suites behind the plate, with only a handful along the baselines at club level. That makes the first row of the upper deck behind home plate roughly five stories above the promenade, a somewhat common Populous practice these days (Progressive Field, Busch Stadium). The cantilever of the club and upper decks is not particularly dramatic, so it doesn’t feel very intimate despite the relatively low seating capacity (37k). Regardless, the upper deck didn’t have bad seats, and there didn’t seem to be any obstructed views. There are huge columns that interrupt the upper reserve seats down the third base line, but there seemed to be enough space to prevent obstructed views.
Those columns probably made the roof system a lot cheaper to build, as a much shorter than usual truss system was constructed. The roof itself is similar to those at Safeco or Minute Maid, a two-way multi-panel rolling structure that retracts to one end of the stadium (in this case, behind the first base line). The roof is tilted slightly from north to south, and the ceiling panels are steel, which contributes mightily to a serious amplification effect. Even though there were less than 20,000 at both games, when they got loud it sounded like 40,000 thanks to the roof. This effect was needlessly enhanced by the extremely loud PA system, which Fangraphs’ Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) complained about bitterly on Sunday. Worse, the PA had the most unconscionable practice of playing piped-in boos over the loudspeakers when the Mets homered. The sound was unmistakeable as it sounded like two or three guys booing into a microphone. No way that was the crowd. The PA certainly didn’t lend any organic crowd feel to Marlins Park, that’s for sure.
I didn’t have access to the club levels so I can’t comment on what goes on there. I did check out The Clevelander in left field after the game. A branch of the popular South Beach bar, The Clevelander has very expensive tickets ($50 seats, $30 SRO) during the game, but has free admission after the game. I followed much of the younger crowd to the club and marveled at how perfectly Miami the setting was inside a ballpark. DJ? Check. Dancers? Check. Full bar? Check. Pool? Check. Multiple lounge areas and a patio? Got that too. The Marlins and The Clevelander have to make an extra five figures just by having the place open after games. It’s not for the purist, but for the casual fan, it’s a must-see.
Despite the convertible nature of today’s dome, any domed ballpark has to be judged differently from open-air parks. The ability to control the environment is simply too much of a factor to compare fairly to open-air parks. As it stands, Marlins Park reminds me of a brand new Rawlings baseball, fresh out of the box. It needs to rubbed up with a little mud. It needs some character. Perhaps if the team didn’t go bust in 2012 and there was some carryover to 2013, I could describe the feel more positively. For now Marlins Park is a place with a good bones, waiting for a good team and a good crowd to arrive.